There is a time to lead and a time to follow.
So goes the mantra of the five juniors on the Penn men’s basketball team, who know their time to lead has come.
With no seniors on the Quakers’ roster and a five-year stretch without an Ivy title, the Class of 2014 is in the spotlight.
But the players have no sense of anxiety or stress about stepping up into the leadership roles, and with good reason. They’ve been taught by the best.
For the first two seasons of their careers, they’ve learned from two of the great players and leaders in Penn basketball history — coach Jerome Allen and 2012 graduate and Ivy League Player of the Year Zack Rosen.
The former greats have had a trickle-down effect on the current squad. Lessons and values that Allen taught Rosen during his career at Penn have been passed on to the juniors.
“The way [Allen] carries himself, the respect he has for other people as human beings is what I’m most impressed about,” junior captain Dau Jok said. “The ability to say hi to everybody he walks by. ‘How you doing? How’s your day?’ Shake hands with people. I do that now. He taught Zack that, Zack showed me, now I’m taking it to another level.”
Junior Fran Dougherty echoed his fellow captain, noting that Rosen put into practice what Allen was trying to teach.
“Right from the start, I just knew Zack was dedicated to the program,” Dougherty said. “It was about more than just him. And coach always says that to us, ‘It’s not about the name on the back of your jersey, it’s about the name on the front of your jersey,’ and Zack really exemplified that in everything that he did here.”
The juniors referenced Rosen’s work ethic, energy and dedication to the program, but as Miles Cartwright — the final piece in the junior captain trio — said, Rosen “was the perfect act to follow.”
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Miles Cartwright is used to high expectations. After a rookie campaign in which he earned four Ivy Rookie of the Week honors and was fourth on the team with 11.7 points per game, followers of Penn basketball were excited about the young guard’s future.
But instead of improving upon his stellar freshman season, Cartwright suffered a sophomore slump. Last year, despite starting in 31 of 32 games, his scoring dropped to 10.8 points per game. Frustrated by his numbers, Cartwright went right to work at the end of the season.
“I was really disappointed by last year and my performance as a whole,” Cartwright said. “So I just wanted to go into the summer and just kind of work on everything and get better at every aspect of my game.
“One thing that made Zack so great was that he was in the best shape of everybody on the team. So I focused on my conditioning and I worked on my shot a lot. I think my shot is a lot more consistent, my ball handling is a lot tighter and where I want it to be.”
His teammates repeatedly commented on his impressive performance in the offseason.
“You can definitely see the work that Miles put into his game … You can see the confidence in knocking down shots, driving to the basket,” junior Cameron Gunter said.
Cartwright described himself as “a fiery leader,” but is still learning when to “get up in guys” and when “to put your arm around guys.”
Cartwright will likely be under the most scrutiny of all the captains this season, but he’s come to realize that in order to be a leader, he has to look forward, not back.
“Coach Allen doesn’t want me to be the next Zack,” Cartwright said. “He just wants me to be myself.”
And unlike last season, in which Rosen was the clear leader of the team, this year’s squad is a lot more balanced.
“Obviously there’s a lot of responsibility that falls on Miles,” Jok said. “There’s a lot of expectations for him, some of which I think are unfair because this is a different team now. It’s not a one-man team anymore. It’s a team now, a collective unit.”
But Cartwright is ignoring the outside noise and focusing on what he can do to help the team succeed.
“I just want to win. That’s all that matters,” he said. “A lot of people are expecting me to lead the team with scoring, now that Zack’s gone … It means nothing to me. I just want to win, and whatever coach needs me to do — whether that’s score points, distribute, guard the best player — I’m willing to do anything as long as we win. That’s all that’s important.”
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Last season, Fran Dougherty felt what it was like to be in the spotlight.
With 1.5 seconds on the clock in a crucial Ivy matchup against Columbia, Cartwright inbounded the ball to Dougherty under the basket, and he completed the layup to give the Quakers a 61-59 overtime victory at the Palestra.
Dougherty played in all 33 games last season and averaged 4.5 points and 4.0 rebounds a night. His increased playing time, as well as coming through in crucial moments like the Columbia game, have prepared him to step up this season.
“When there’s another moment like that or something comes down to the last play of the game, you’ve been there before, and that’s really special because you’re not uptight, you’re not nervous in that moment,” Dougherty said. “And that’s what’s tough with being a freshman. You’ve never been in that situation in front of that many people and all eyes are on you. Now that I’ve played a lot and other guys have played a lot, it won’t be as much pressure.”
Unlike the summer after his freshman year, when he focused mainly on his conditioning and strength, Dougherty spent most of his time in the gym this offseason.
“I looked at what Zack was doing and guys like that and they were just in the gym more than I was, so I made it part of my daily routine to just be in the gym and work on skills stuff,” he said.
And like Cartwright, Dougherty was praised by his teammates for his offseason efforts.
“He had a tremendous summer,” Jok said. “Some of the moves he has in the arsenal, I don’t think anybody can stop him. I think he’s the most skilled post man in the league.” “Fran definitely led the group in terms of offseason working out and just being one of the guys that really stepped up into the leadership role,” Gunter added.
Dougherty emphasized that he leads by example.
“I try to lead mostly by what I do in the gym — hard work and just sticking to coach’s principles,” he said. “I try not to make mistakes, I try to run his offense and defense the right way and I think that shows, just being attentive to details.
“I think I need to improve on being more vocal and really pushing guys because I’m always thinking in the back of my mind, ‘What do I need to be doing better?’ But I really just have to do everything right as a leader on the court.”
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While many athletes would be disappointed if they had spent most of their time on the bench, Dau Jok turns it into an opportunity to help his team.
“If I’m on the bench, I’m going to clap and get everybody engaged,” he said. “But if I’m out there, I’ll knock down the open shots … and just work within the team, whatever the objective is … If one night, my role is to go get water, I’ll do that because it’s not about me, it’s about us as a group.”
This attitude stems from his AAU playing days in Iowa. He was competing against players like Harrison Barnes, who played at UNC and now stars in the NBA, and Iowa forward Zach McCabe.
“One of the things that I learned early was that if I’m not going to play, how can I help the team?” he said. “I can bring something to the table … I learned early on that if I couldn’t be on the court, I might as well make myself relevant.”
His outlook has led him to be an inspirational leader for his teammates. And while he will do anything he can to contribute, he is ultimately a competitor who wants playing time.
“Obviously I want to get on the court,” Jok said. “But there’s only 200 minutes a game so whether it be me playing 90 seconds or 20 minutes, I’m going to accept that role and make the best out of it.”
His teammates know that despite not having a ton of game experience — he’s played just 72 minutes in his career — Jok is someone the younger players should emulate.
“Dau hasn’t gotten a whole lot of playing time since he’s been here, but his work ethic never falters … he’s juggling a lot of things, but he puts 100 percent of hard work into basketball and everything that he does,” Gunter said. “That’s definitely someone we should all be looking to.”
Jok said one of his main responsibilities as captain is to make sure every player does his part to help the team succeed.
“There’s this African proverb that if you clean in front of your own hut, the world will be clean,” he said. “If you do your job, everybody will be okay at the end of the day.”
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“I remember my first game freshman year, I stepped on the court and there was just bright lights and I was in awe and didn’t know what to do or what to expect,” Steve Rennard reminisced.
That shouldn’t be a problem for Rennard anymore. Though he averaged just 3.7 points per game a year ago, he had a few memorable games in which he reached double figures, most of them coming from beyond the arc.
Rennard said he is not the type of leader to scream at his teammates. Instead, he helps keep the younger players from getting discouraged if they make a mistake.
“I tend to see myself as the one who comes up and encourages freshmen,” he said. “When the coach is doing so much yelling — obviously that’s their job — but you need somebody to kind of come and help you and encourage you for some positive reinforcement.”
Rennard and his teammates recognized that his strength is on defense.
“I really want to get that role down as being known as the defensive stopper on the team,” he said.
“Defensively, he gets it done,” Jok said. “I think he’s going to have a fantastic year because he’s a defensive-minded kid.”
Rennard is nearly back to full speed after having surgery in September for a double sports hernia.
“Steve took a backseat because he was injured,” Cartwright said. “But now with him on the court, his experience and as hard as he plays, it’s a great example for the younger guys to follow.”
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Cameron Gunter has played only 161 minutes in his two years at Penn, but he is prepared to take on a bigger leadership role this season.
“I think we were kind of ready for it from the start,” he said. “We understood that there weren’t seniors that were going to be there so it was falling on us to step up.”
Gunter said his strength is that he is “one of the better communicators on the team on the defensive end.”
“He’s been getting a lot of praise from coaches because he consistently talks,” Jok said. “And when the big man is talking, he makes things a lot easier for everybody, very easy because he directs the traffic.”
Gunter plans on contributing much more this season, particularly defensively. And while he is stepping up on the court, he is also setting an example for the younger players outside of basketball, especially in the classroom.
“I think I’m a pretty good role model off the court in terms of the classroom and academics,” he said. “I like to place myself as an outlet for the younger guys, whether they need help academically or if they just need some guidance that may not be pertinent to the on-the-court antics … While basketball is a huge commitment and a huge deal, the bottom line is that you also have to be eligible to play basketball.”
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Every junior acknowledged that the team is under a lot of pressure to get back to the top of the league.
“We get reminded of it a lot, just looking up at the banners, you see it everyday,” Dougherty said. “So it’s a lot of pressure that way, but it’s something to work forward to.”
Yet, the Quakers were predicted to finish fifth in the Ivy League preseason media poll, and people outside the program have low expectations for the season.
“I think now we’re really motivated that a lot of people are counting us out,” Cartwright said. “We saw the preseason poll and we were obviously upset, but there’s nothing we can do about that. We still need to come out here and play the games and compete.
“We want to prove everybody wrong. We know we have a lot of talent and we feel like we’re capable of doing a lot of great things, and one of those things is to win a championship. So that’s one thing that really, really motivates us.”
The players know that fans see a leadership void after losing last year’s senior class. But they are drowning out the voices of doubt and are confident in their ability to lead the program back to its former glory.
As evidenced by the lessons that have traveled from Allen to Rosen to the current juniors, the impact of this class’s leadership goes far beyond 2014.
“I think the championships we win two, three, four, five years from now have something to do with what I do now,” Jok said. “What we do now has a larger impact on what goes on in the future.”
And while Penn fans and Ivy opponents alike grew accustomed to Zack Rosen taking command of games by himself, these five juniors are ready to step up and lead the Quakers together.
“I don’t think this is about one person, who’s going to shine or who’s going to break through as the leader,” Dougherty said. “I think we need to do it as a junior class because that’s who everyone is looking at right now and who the younger guys are looking up to because we’ve been around so long.
“But I don’t think there can be one leader in this whole thing. Everyone is going to make everyone better and keep us all together. That’s what a team’s about.”
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